Stop sneering at 'posh' universities

10th August 2007 at 01:00
Libby Purves is a novelist and broadcaster.

She presents 'The Learning Curve' on BBC Radio 4

The other night, I was lured to a dinner for one of the Sutton Trust summer schools at Robinson College, Cambridge. It was a blast. I met superbright young physicists from a Welsh comprehensive. There were musicians, several keen to become music teachers, and a group of aspiring law students fresh from a mock trial. They were high on it, thrilled to glimpse a new world and the freedom to think for themselves beyond the A-level jelly mould.

The deputy warden spoke and, while hoping some would go to Cambridge (right), told of his own multi-university background and spoke warmly of university in general.

Yet in the anecdotal experience of those who lead these courses, there are schools that actively discourage Oxbridge applications and sneer at "posh" universities. Several kids said they had to trawl their schools to find a teacher willing to sign the application for the summer school. Some are told: "You won't fit in, it's not your kind of place."

I have met that attitude. I once talked to a clever, lairy sixth-form group about media jobs. In discussing degrees, I mentioned the difference between the English courses at Oxford and Cambridge as well as other universities. On the way out, the teacher hissed: "I wish you hadn't said that. We don't encourage Oxbridge applications here; it sets them up to fail."

This nonsense should be a disciplinary offence. Sure, you might fail. Anybody might. It is wicked for teachers to sneer at imaginary "poshness" and discourage pupils from having a punt and going to an interview merely because they might like the majority not get in. Even more wicked to say they would not fit in socially if they did.

Oxford, Cambridge and other high-fliers didn't ask for their largely imaginary social profile. They are working to erode it.

Teachers who bridle at the name Oxbridge on leftie social grounds are out of date. If you want posh kids whose parents buy them houses, look more widely. Bristol bristles with them; St Andrews and Edinburgh are not short of braying; Durham sees many a swirling ball dress; and Exeter is favoured by the surfing set who also love its social scene.

Before a posse of vice-chancellors comes to kneecap me, all of these excellent places have "ordinary" kids (and a few "deprived" ones too). So does Oxford and Cambridge. There is no reason to be snippy.

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